On Friday, August 20, 2020, the Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Spokane county’s three (all-Republican) commissioners cannot stop Substitute House Bill 2887 (SHB 2887). Along with other provisions, the bill added two commissioners to counties with populations of 400,000 or more. Spokane County commissioners sued to overturn the law as they wanted to keep the current system. Fortunately, the state Supreme Court ruled against them.
Better representation – by district!
Currently, we nominate commissioners by district, but then we elect them countywide in the general election. As a result, districts don’t make the final decision as to who represents them. Instead, the entire county makes that decision.
Under the new law, voters in each district will continue to nominate two candidates in the primary election. But in the general election, the voters in the district will elect their commissioner. As a result, each of the five districts will elect a commissioner. As Rep. Marcus Riccelli said, “For larger counties like Spokane, moving to five commissioners ensures citizens get a more responsive government that matches growing populations.”
More commissioners to do the work!
There’s a lot of work for three commissioners to do in an urban county.
And in 2023, we’ll have five commissioners to serve on regional boards and commissions instead of the current three. As a result, it will be easier for commissioners to participate on solutions and problems as each one will have fewer meetings to attend. By dividing the current work among five people instead of three, each will have more available time.
As a side benefit, the new law reduces the possibility of any one commissioner being absent for 22 consecutive meetings of the regional health board. More on that in a different blog post.
Five commissioners means better communication.
Currently, any time two (out of the three) commissioners are in the same room, they can’t talk to each other unless they are in an “official meeting”. Even emails or telephone calls between two commissioners can’t happen. Our state’s Open Public Meetings Act prohibits a majority of the three commissioners from making decisions (or even talking about county business) except in a public meeting. And it’s a terrible way to run an urban county. That’s because county government evolves into “government by press conference”. That’s where one commissioner announces to the world what they want the county to do. And it’s done in an effort to communicate indirectly with the other two commissioners.
Starting in 2023, any two of the five commissioners may talk to each other to discuss and work on issues.
All three current commissioners voted to sue the state over this law.
Our state legislature approved the new form of government for larger counties in a bi-partisan vote.
But our three all-Republican Spokane County commissioners disagreed with the legislature.
And they disagreed with Matt Shea and Marcus Riccelli; Timm Ormsby and Jeff Holy; Mike Volz and Andy Billig; and Michael Baumgartner. In fact, all of the Spokane County-based legislators voted for the bi-partisan law, except Senator Padden.
Our commissioners spent time and some county resources to fight the state.
And at least one of the commissioners, Al French, is still unhappy — he wants the state to delay the implementation of the new law for two additional years. And if that doesn’t work, he’ll push for a complicated process to keep the old three-commissioner system by writing a charter for Spokane County.
Al French’s vision for Spokane County differs from a bi-partisan law from our state legislature. So, he announces his views to the press, because he’s not allowed to talk to his other two commissioners except in a public meeting.
This November, two of the three commissioners are up for reelection. Each should be replaced. Both are reliable “second votes” for the vision of Al French.
Spokane County needs commissioners who care about effective, representational government. Government that is focused on the needs of people. Government that is capable of change for the better.